A Review of Mike Davis and Jon Wiener's New Book "Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties"Historians in the News
tags: Los Angeles, 1960s, urban history, book review
THE IDEA — often circulated by New Yorkers — that Los Angeles has no “real” history has long been discredited. Mike Davis is one of a group of distinguished historians who have done the unglamorous but necessary work of reconstructing Los Angeles’s past from the ground up in this city of surfaces and images. Now Davis and Jon Wiener have turned their attentions to Los Angeles in the 1960s in Set the Night on Fire, peeling back the layers of myth that have grown about this misunderstood decade to show that those who do not venture beyond the familiar signposts of the Watts Rebellion, the Manson murders, and the RFK assassination do it a disservice.
Their intent was not to offer a comprehensive history of Los Angeles in the 1960s — to do so would have required many more pages than the 600-plus they have produced — but to capture a crucially important element of it: the social, cultural, and racial movements bubbling up from the schools, storefronts, and streets that shifted the equilibrium, opening it to possibilities of fundamental egalitarian change. Davis and Wiener are historians of the left, with deep roots in the Los Angeles area and decades of activist experience reaching back to the 1960s. They are thus well positioned to render judgment on the events they narrate; for at least some of the time, they were there. Combining comprehensive, mineshaft-deep research with unique firsthand knowledge, their recounting of the radical ’60s in Los Angeles will likely not be surpassed.
Davis and Wiener tell a complex story involving webs of relationships along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and class, in what would today be referred to as intersectionality. One of the major contributions of Set the Night on Fire is the linkage of what have often been viewed as separate events, including the so-called “Blowouts,” politically inspired secondary-school walkouts that originated among Latino students but soon became multiracial; anti–Vietnam War protests that moved beyond white constituencies to engage Angelenos of color; and black cultural articulations that attracted white leftist support.
Davis and Wiener argue that, at least for a time, a movement of movements existed in Los Angeles with the potential to transform social and political life in the city for generations to come. But it ultimately produced reform, not revolution. Why this outcome? Davis and Wiener fault the ongoing intransigence of institutions — the police department, public education system, and employment and housing markets, as well as the forces of globalization and deindustrialization, class inequities, intergenerationally transmitted white supremacist attitudes, and the inflexibilities and inertias of politics-as-usual.
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